Wolfram Alpha has a long way to go

I expressed some excitement earlier about the forthcoming release of the Wolfram Alpha “computational knowledge engine”. Alpha went live over a week ago; here are my impressions so far.

Wolfram|Alpha’s long-term goal is to make all systematic knowledge immediately computable and accessible to everyone.

Alpha is still a long way short of achieving this goal of making knowledge “computable” and “accessible to everyone”. In its current form, Alpha gives answers, but provides no access to the underlying data or any way to explore further.

Let’s use a sample query: united states gdp

For results, Alpha provides a recent (2007) GDP figure and a chart showing the annual trend since 1970.

Unfortunately, there’s no way to download the data table behind the chart, which is to say, the data is not “accessible to everyone”. Apparently “computable” only refers to the ability of the Mathematica engine (which powers Alpha) to do computation, but the service does not help users to do further computation of their own. There is a promising “Live Mathematica” link on every results page, but this is worthless: the notebook that is presented in Mathematica is not live at all, there was no way to do further local computation on the data. The chart displayed by Alpha was produced by Mathematica running on their server, but there are no options to adjust the chart format, and since you can’t get the data table you can’t create your own chart.

The obvious next step would be to look for the source data from the original source. But the “Source information” link gives only a list of references, with no links to actual data.


These limitations make Alpha, for now, fairly useless for real research and investigation. But it’s a promising start. There’s a wealth of factual information in the repository and the search-like user interface is not intimidating. I look forward to future releases that might bring some of Wolfram’s goals truly within reach.


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